The Brewers season is over. Already a mediocre team that needed to catch a lot of breaks in order to contend, Milwaukee has gotten off to an 8-18 start, watched two of their best players end up on the disabled list, and on Sunday night, they fired their manager. They currently stand 11.5 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central race, and the season is only a month old. By the time the trade deadline rolls around, they may be 20 games out, and even the lowered bar of the second Wild Card can’t save the Brewers 2015 season. Which is why they’ve already told other teams that they’ll likely be an early seller, and are just waiting for buyers to decide it’s time to upgrade in order to start moving veterans for things that can offer more help in the future.
However, according to Buster Olney, the Brewers are hanging a not-for-sale sign on their best player.
The Brewers have made clear to other teams assessing possible trade options: They are not willing to deal catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) May 5, 2015
This shouldn’t come as any big surprise, as even rebuilding teams have rarely moved their franchise players lately. Whether it was Felix Hernandez, Troy Tulowitzki, or Giancarlo Stanton, we just haven’t seen non-contending teams be willing to put legitimate frontline players on the market, preferring instead to build around their best players rather than use them as chips to try and stockpile a larger quantity of talent. It’s one thing to trade role players and guys on expiring contracts, but no one seems particularly interested in getting rid of the kind of player that is very hard to get back.
But I think there’s a strong case to be made that the Brewers should go against the grain here. Jonathan Lucroy is a great player, but I think the Brewers are probably better off trading him than they are keeping him.
Let’s start with the obvious; Lucroy is an amazingly valuable trade chip. He was a legitimate MVP candidate last year, putting up a +6 WAR season that doesn’t give him any credit for his framing talents, which is the skill that made him famous in the first place. If you take the full measure of framing run estimates at face value, Lucroy may have been more like an +8 WAR player last year. That was likely a peak season that he won’t repeat, but he is likely a four or five win upgrade over a replacement level catcher throughout the course of an entire season, making him one of the very best players in baseball.
And then there is his salary. Due to the pre-breakout extension he signed, Lucroy’s under contract for $3 million this year, $4 million next year, and then the Brewers hold an option for the 2016 season at the whopping price of $5.2 million. In other words, over the rest of this year and the next two seasons, the Brewers owe Lucroy a grand total of under $12 million, or less than the team will pay Matt Garza for just the 2015 season alone.
If you’re wondering about the market value of an elite defensive catcher who can also hit pretty decently, well, Russell Martin just got $83 million over five years as a free agent last winter, and that was for his age 32-36 seasons; Lucroy is not only a better player than Martin, but his remaining contract covers his age 29-31 seasons.
If Lucroy were a free agent over the winter, and said he only wanted to sign a three year deal, the bidding likely would have been pushing towards $85 or $90 million; Hanley Ramirez (an inferior player) got $88 million for four years by absolving the Red Sox of some risk this way, showing the AAV premium that gets attached to shorter deals. So if Lucroy is worth something like $85 or $90 million before he becomes a free agent, and he’s getting paid just north $10 million, well, you can see why he ranked 13th on my off-season Trade Value update.
And because of his exceptionally low salary, the Brewers would have the opportunity to market him to a number of teams who usually can’t be buyers for elite players. Generally, teams selling these kinds of high-end talents can call the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Dodgers, or the Phillies, but few other teams can afford to both the prospect and salary cost of MVP-caliber trade chips. At $3 million this year, however, Lucroy fits in every team’s budget, and the Brewers could have substantial negotiations with any of the other 29 clubs in baseball.
The Astros, for instance, are probably not going to be in on Cole Hamels, even after their 18-8 start has given them a seven game lead in the AL West. But you have to know that the team that employs Mike Fast probably puts a pretty high value on Lucroy’s skillset, and if they wanted to make a serious upgrade over the next few seasons, swapping Lucroy in for Jason Castro would likely be the kind of deal that would force them to the table. Same deal with the Pirates, who wanted to keep Martin but had to settle for Francisco Cervelli due to payroll restrictions. While teams like the Red Sox and Dodgers would almost certainly be interested if Lucroy became available, the Brewers wouldn’t face the same kind of limited market that exists for more expensive trade chips, and could leverage the higher demand to extract a premium price.
Blake Swihart is not on the table for Cole Hamels, but you have to believe the Red Sox would part with him (and a lot more) in order to land Lucroy. The Astros and Carlos Correa? The Dodgers and Corey Seager? These guys might be untouchable for expensive aging pitchers, but put a 29 year old star catcher being paid like a middle reliever on the trade block, and I’d imagine those guys suddenly aren’t so off limits anymore. Lucroy is the kind of chip that gets you a premium talent in return, and probably some other stuff too.
Of course, all these guys come with a lot of risk, and prospects bust all the time, even the really good ones. It’s understandable that the Brewers wouldn’t want to trade their franchise player for some guy who probably won’t ever be as good as Lucroy already is, and certainly won’t sign a deal that pays him so little through is prime years. Why trade a low-risk commodity for a guy who you hope might become what you’re trading away?
Because, unfortunately for the Brewers, their near-term reality is bleak. This isn’t a situation where they just need to swap out some parts and come roaring back next year. 2015 is the decline into a hole, not the climb out of it. Things are probably not going to get significantly better in Milwaukee during the remainder of Lucroy’s contract.
The Brewers just don’t really have a good young core they can point to and hope for a near-term resurgence. You’re not going to challenge the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates with a team built around Jean Segura, Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, and Ryan Braun’s decline years. Orlando Arcia looks like a nifty prospect who could play one of the two middle infield spots as early as next year, and maybe Clint Coulter can make an impact in a couple of years, but the rest of their best prospects are in A-ball (or lower), and there just isn’t enough here to build a credible case that Milwaukee will be able to stack up enough talent to compete with the three very good teams in their own division.
Once you admit the 2015 season is over, then retaining star center fielder Carlos Gomez — who is under contract through 2016, but will lose significant trade value if a team is only acquiring his walk year — doesn’t make much sense anymore. And once you trade him, the odds of contending in 2017 aren’t very good either. Maybe if the front office made some extremely shrewd free agent signings they could get back to being a decent team with an outside shot at a Wild Card spot, but even that would take a lot of good fortune. The Brewers don’t have enough talent in-house to be good any time soon, and while you can always hope to hit on every acquisition you make, it’s an unrealistic expectation.
By the time the Brewers have a chance to compete in the NL Central again, Jonathan Lucroy will be a 31 or 32 year old catcher, either in the final year of his current contract or the first year of his new deal, and assuming he remains a valuable contributor, he’s going to demand a significant chunk of change, since it will be his first and only shot at a big payday. While the Brewers are understandably attached to their star catcher, they should probably take a look at the Twins regretful decision to pay Joe Mauer market price for his decline years, and keep in mind the risks that a team with a mid-level payroll runs betting on an aging catcher.
The Brewers most likely aren’t going to be able to turn Lucroy’s short-term value into a playoff run, and they probably shouldn’t be planning on re-signing him to a big expensive deal that would turn him into an albatross at the end of his career. For a team facing a several year rebuilding project, a 29 year old catcher who is unlikely to sign another below-market deal is just not the kind of piece you want to build around. If Lucroy was 25, okay, yeah, keep him. But he’s not 25, and the Brewers have worked him very hard over the years, so he’s already racked up nearly 5,000 innings behind the plate in his career. Maybe he has 5,000 more in his knees, but this isn’t a guy who is easily going to transition his skills to another position and remain an impact player, and the bet on his long-term value is a bet on him staying productive while catching regularly into his mid-30s.
And so while Lucroy is a star now, keeping him as a building block for the future may very well be a riskier bet than trading him for a package of minor leaguers. There’s risk in either decision, so it’s not exchanging a sure thing for not-a-sure thing, and there’s very likely going to be more long-term potential in the players the team would get back for Lucroy than he will offer himself.
If this was just a one year setback, keeping Lucroy would be a viable strategy. If he was a few years younger, you could still see him as a cornerstone for the next good Brewers team. But he’s a nearly 30 year old catcher who will demand a huge raise before the Brewers get good again, and he’s the kind of asset now that would allow them to bring back a player who could be their next franchise cornerstone.
The Brewers got where they are now by regularly shooting for the middle. It’s time to stop worrying about making it to 75 wins and focus on getting to 90 wins again. Jonathan Lucroy is probably not still going to be a star when the Brewers can put another 90 win team on the field, but the pieces that he could bring back in a mid-season trade certainly could be. While the Brewers shouldn’t be giving him away, telling interested parties that they don’t want to move their most valuable trade chip is the same kind of half-in/half-out strategy that got them in this mess in the first place.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.